- Date posted: 26th January 2023
New study finds that people can interpret ape gestures.
Researchers at the University of St Andrews have discovered that humans can understand common gestures made by chimpanzees and bonobos. Even though as humans no longer use these gestures ourselves, the study suggests that we have retained the ability to make sense of them.
Apes are known to use a rich repertoire of gestures to communicate with each other, with significant overlap in the gestures used across different species. Scientists have worked to successfully decipher the meaning of over 80 ape signals.
Although research has found that preverbal human infants use some of these gestures, they are not commonly used among adult humans. But this doesn’t mean that they have been forgotten.
To test people’s ability to accurately interpret the gestures, Dr Kirsty E. Graham and Dr Catherine Hobaiter created an online game. Players viewed short videos of chimpanzees and bonobos making 10 of the most frequently used ape gestures, After seeing each gesture, they were asked to select its meaning from four possible answers. A total of 5,656 people took part.
The participants identified the correct meanings more than 50 per cent of the time, significantly better than would be expected by chance. When given additional context about each gesture, the amount of successful answers did not significantly increase, suggesting that the participants genuinely understood the body language of the apes and weren’t using other clues to guess the meaning.
The study, ‘Towards a great ape dictionary: Inexperienced humans understand common nonhuman ape gestures’, has been published in PLOS Biology.
Dr Hobaiter said: “On one hand it’s really incredible that we’re able to do this – Kirsty and I have spent years living in the forest with chimpanzees and bonobos and working hard to study their communication. But it turns out that perhaps we didn’t need to! We can decode these gestures almost instinctively.
"It’s a useful reminder that we are also great apes! And that, even though today modern humans have language, we’ve kept some understanding of our shared ancestral system of ape communication.”
If you’d like to test your own ability to understand ape gestures, the quiz is still available to take online, although data is no longer being collected for the study.